The impact of COVID-19 on older adults (part 1)

July 2, 2020

COVID-19 poses a risk not only to the health of older adults who contract the disease but also to those without the health care resources and social structures that contribute to overall wellness

Before becoming a professor, Sarah Szanton made house calls to older adults as a nurse practitioner. On her visits, she saw how an older person’s home environment can contribute to health outcomes. Now, as the Endowed Professor for Health Equity and Social Justice at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and the director of the Center for Innovative Care in Aging, Szanton works to identify solutions to narrow racial and socioeconomic disparities for older people.

Szanton joined one of her PhD student mentees, Sarah LaFave, to discuss the challenges that COVID-19 poses for older adults. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting older people differently than younger generations?

Older adults are more likely to have dire outcomes from the virus. It can also be a challenge to prevent older people from being exposed to the virus because they may not be be fully independent. For example, a mother might rely on her adult daughter to come and help her with groceries or take a shower. As another example, some older people depend on help from a family member or friend with sorting mail and sending in checks to pay bills. At this point, people may not have had someone come into the home to help with those kinds of things for many weeks. What happens if one of those unpaid bills is for an essential resource or accrues a lot of interest during this time?

We also have to think about all of the ways that the pandemic affects older people’s lives beyond morbidity and mortality from the virus itself. I am concerned about people experiencing social isolation as a result of not being able to have visitors and not being able to go out and do things with other people. The effects are compounded for any older person who doesn’t have access to technology platforms like Skype and FaceTime or who has limited access to phone calls. Many lower-income older people have pay-per-minute phone plans, for example, and may have to choose between using their limited minutes for a phone visit with a doctor or a conversation with a grandchild. So we can’t assume that a switch to virtual socialization or virtual access to resources is going to work for all older people.

Also, I think there’s a fair amount of ageism—of people thinking right now, even if they aren’t saying it out loud, “Well, older people are going to die anyway.” But who are we to say that an 80-year-old wouldn’t have otherwise lived to be 100 and done a lot of wonderful things in those 20 years? We would never think that the first 20 years of someone’s life don’t matter; we should recognize that the last 20 years are just as valuable.

(Continued Next Week)